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Afcon 2013: After 19 Years,Nigeria Crowned Champions

Nigerians frustrated by years of waiting for their football team to again play to its potential erupted with screams of joy and celebration Sunday as the country clinched the African Cup of Nations.

Thousands who gathered near the national stadium in Lagos, the largest city of Africa's most populous nation, to watch the final on two big screens hugged one another, danced with abandon and held plastic chairs aloft.

They counted down the final seconds and fireworks exploded above them after the 1-0 win by their Super Eagles over Burkina Faso was assured, giving the country its first Nations Cup title since 1994.

The crowd included some dressed in traditional Yoruba robes and hats, supporters painted in the national colours of green and white, and of course many with Nigerian flags.

"It has been long," said 32-year-old Walter Samuel shortly after the match ended and with the crowd around him swaying as local hip-hop blared on speakers from the stage. "This is the Super Eagles we have been looking for for so long."

The victory may extinguish, at least temporarily, some of the cynicism toward a team which performed so poorly at the 2010 World Cup that President Goodluck Jonathan sought to ban them -- a move he later rescinded.

Nigeria failed to even qualify for the 2012 Nations Cup -- making this year's run all the more sensational, with a quarter-final victory against favourites Ivory Coast giving the first glimpse of something special occurring.

Those in the crowd gave credit to coach Stephen Keshi, saying he turned the team around after taking over, trusted local players and made the country of some 160 million people believe in them.

Keshi has now won the Nations Cup both as a player and a coach.

Others said the victory could bring Nigeria long overdue respect and help citizens feel proud of their country.

Nigeria, despite being the continent's largest oil producer, has been held back by deeply rooted corruption and most of the country lives on less than $2 per day.

Suspicions over corruption, part of nearly every level of society here, have extended to Nigeria's football infrastructure as well and some blamed graft for the team's past failures.

A number of people in the crowd said they hoped this team marked a new era.

"Football always adds to some kind of belief in us," said Kunle Francis, 33. "It gives a message to people that we can make it."

Nigeria includes some 250 ethnic groups and is roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south -- divisions that have often led to violence.

The parents of Victor Moses, a national team star and Chelsea player, were killed when he was 11 in religious riots in Kaduna, still a flashpoint city a decade later.

The father of John Obi Mikel, also a national team and Chelsea player, was abducted in what was suspected to have been a ransom kidnapping in Nigeria in 2011 before being freed some 10 days later in a police raid.

But football allows the country to forget its troubles and rejoice. Celebrations broke out nationwide.

In Kano, the largest city in the north, a standing-room-only crowd crammed into a viewing centre in the Abdullahi Bayero district. A police cruiser came by and asked people standing outside how the game was going.

Smaller outdoor bars also saw big crowds in Kano, Nigeria's second-largest city.

Perhaps fittingly, it was a locally based player, Sunday Mba, who scored the lone goal on, yes, Sunday. He had also scored the match winner against Ivory Coast -- which happened to be last Sunday.

"We never expected them to get this far," said a 23-year-old woman who identified herself as Betty as the time ticked away toward a Nigerian win. "There was just this disbelief everywhere."

And next? Walter Samuel and his friends had a clear answer.

"This will continue," said Samuel, who described himself as an apprentice shoe repairer, before adding in reference to next year's World Cup: "We are taking this team to Brazil."

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